''Happy Endings" has a rather unhappy start. A woman named Mamie Toll runs out of a subdivision cul-de-sac into oncoming traffic, and is promptly struck by a car.
The scene is all the more upsetting because the woman playing Mamie is Lisa Kudrow, the smart comedic actress who seems to have skidded into a masochistic streak, enduring humiliation on HBO's gimmicky ''The Comeback." This movie, a blackish comedy written and directed by Don Roos, also has a nagging, albeit less painful gimmick.
After Kudrow is hit by that car, the screen splits and a reassuring title comes up. ''She's not really dead," it reads. ''No one dies in this movie." These pop-ups appear often enough throughout the film to warrant status as the cheekiest, most omniscient member of a crack ensemble that includes Laura Dern, Steve Coogan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Tom Arnold, who's actually very good. The pop-ups are in Roos's voice. The trouble with them is that they intrude on the film's interwoven trilogy of Los Angeles stories.
''Happy Endings" is shuffled among three tales of love and parenting, secrets, lies, and manipulation. After Mamie is hit, the film rewinds to explain what led to her running down the road in a panic. Not long before, she received a cryptic note from Nicky (Jesse Bradford), a young documentary filmmaker who claims to know the son she gave up for adoption 19 years ago. If she wants Nicky to give her the boy's name, she has to agree to let him film the reunion for his application to the American Film Institute. Appalled but intrigued, Mamie offers an alternative movie about her boyfriend, Javier (Bobby Cannavale), an immigrant masseur from Mexico who finishes off some female clients with the erotic bonus of the movie's title.
Meanwhile across town, Mamie's stepbrother, Charlie (Coogan), is convinced that his good friends Pam (Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke) have surreptitiously used the sperm of Charlie's boyfriend, Gil (David Sutcliffe), to father their young son.
Not far away is the movie's most interesting story. It features Otis (Jason Ritter), the 22-year-old who runs the karaoke nights at Charlie's restaurant. His band's lead singer, a grifter named Jude (Gyllenhaal), beds him, then threatens to tell his wealthy widower father, Frank (Arnold), that he's gay. To please her, they concoct a scheme that keeps Otis's dad in the dark and allows her to live in their home, where she instigates an affair with Frank.
In his three tales, Roos appears to have conceived, respectively, a short film, a bad episode of television drama, and the material for a decent French novel. He's blended them seemingly in the hope that each will amount to more in the others' company. As tidily and ''happily" as this movie winds up, it seems like a draft for a project Roos is still working out. Even when the running commentary offers poignant news of what will happen to these people in the years ahead, ''Happy Endings" feels as overwrought and curiously weightless as Roos's previous pictures, ''The Opposite of Sex" and ''Bounce."
This isn't because the acting doesn't have any heft. The cast is strong. Kudrow and Gyllenhaal provide the movie's emotional center, and the film doesn't stint on giving either enough to do.
Roos does have a firm grasp on his characters. Their secrets provide protection against complete vulnerability, and, more than once in this film, their desperate and retaliative disclosures are comparable to chewing off an arm to evade danger. But whenever possible, Roos opts for smugness over introspection. These people can perceive the bad in others, but none can glimpse it in themselves.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.